In California, gun smugglers use FedEx. In Chicago, smugglers drive just across the state line into Indiana, buy a gun and drive back. In Orlando, Fla., smugglers have been known to fill a $500 car with guns and send it on a ship to crime rings in Puerto Rico.
In response to mass shootings in the last few years, more than 20 states, including some of the nation’s biggest, have passed new laws restricting how people can buy and carry guns. Yet the effect of those laws has been significantly diluted by a thriving underground market for firearms brought from states with few restrictions.
About 50,000 guns are found to be diverted to criminals across state lines every year, federal data shows, and many more are likely to cross state lines undetected.
In New York and New Jersey, which have some of the strictest laws in the country, more than two-thirds of guns tied to criminal activity were traced to out-of-state purchases in 2014. Many were brought in via the so-called Iron Pipeline, made up of Interstate 95 and its tributary highways, from Southern states with weaker gun laws, like Virginia, Georgia and Florida.
Many guns used in crimes are brought to New York and New Jersey along Interstate 95. In recent years, more guns have started coming from Pennsylvania gun shows, a federal official said.
A handgun used in the killing of two Brooklyn officers last year was traced to a pawnshop just south of Atlanta. A revolver used in a fatal shooting of an officer in Queens in May was traced to a roadside pawnshop, also in Georgia, about 100 miles from Atlanta. And a handgun used to kill an officer in East Harlem last month was traced to South Carolina.
“We’re trying to deal with it, but we have a spigot that’s wide open down there and we don’t have a national or local ability to shut that spigot down at the moment,” said the New York City police commissioner, William J. Bratton, as he announced an indictment against gun traffickers last week.
The economics are straightforward: A low-quality handgun that sells for $100 in an Atlanta store might sell for $500 or $600 in New York City, researchers say — and it can be transported cheaply. By contrast, the majority of guns used in crimes in Texas, Georgia and other states with more lenient gun laws are purchased in-state.
The New York Times examined gun trafficking by analyzing nine years of data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as an index of state gun laws developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Law enforcement officials express frequent frustration that they are not able to track every gun that crosses state lines, which means the estimates here are conservative. When the police do recover a gun tied to criminal activity, typically after an arrest, they can trace the gun to where it was last sold through a federally licensed dealer.
Chicago offers perhaps the starkest example of trafficking. There are no retail gun dealers within city limits, because Chicago has some of the tightest municipal gun regulations. Yet bringing a gun into Chicago can be as simple as driving less than an hour to a gun show in Indiana, where private sales are not recorded and do not require a background check.
“If you’re in the city of Chicago on the South Side, you may be closer to Indiana than you are to the Magnificent Mile,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, referring to a well-known part of Chicago’s downtown.
Many guns follow a complex path from the original sale to the underground market. Most guns are originally bought from retail stores, but people who can’t pass a background check typically obtain guns from friends, family or illegal dealers.
According to an anonymous survey of inmates in Cook County, Ill., covering 135 guns they had access to, only two had been purchased directly from a gun store. Many inmates reported obtaining guns from friends who had bought them legally and then reported them stolen, or from locals who had brought the guns from out of state.
One inmate said, “Some people get on a train and bring them back, can be up to five or six guns, depending on how much risk they want to take.”
Some larger traffickers use more elaborate techniques. Buying a gun in Puerto Rico requires an expensive permit and a lengthy application process, but Florida has no such restrictions. Traffickers in Orlando tied to organized gangs in Puerto Rico send guns in the mail, through FedEx, or even encased in cars that travel by ship to the island.
“They’ll buy a $500 car and stuff it with as many guns as possible,” said Carlos Gonzalez, an agent with the Miami division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.